NPR logo The Good Listener: Saying No To 'Songstress' And Other Forbidden Words

Music Articles

The Good Listener: Saying No To 'Songstress' And Other Forbidden Words

Sarah McLachlan gets called a "songstress" a lot. Translation: "Look everyone, a lady is singing a song!" Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of the artist

Sarah McLachlan gets called a "songstress" a lot. Translation: "Look everyone, a lady is singing a song!"

Courtesy of the artist

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the unsolicited phone books we toss straight into the recycling bin is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on words we'd prefer never to hear associated with music.

Eleanor writes via email: "You've tweeted about your hatred of the word 'songstress.' Writing about music is tricky, but what words do you think should ALWAYS be avoided, and why?"

Okay, let's start with "songstress." I see this awful, awful word so much, and it sets my teeth on edge every time I encounter it. It's so twee and infantilizing and pointlessly, unnecessarily gendered — look, everyone, a lady is singing a song! — that I've taken to attacking it frequently on social media in the hopes that others may join my cause. There's a big poster on a pillar by my desk with various dos and don'ts and journalistic pet peeves (because I'm that guy), and right at the top are the words, "Never use songstress." God, what a gross word.

My No. 1 rule of writing about music — and lord knows I've broken it once or twice in the past 20-plus years — is to make sure you're always saying something. Provide backstory and context, try to establish a sense of the music's essence, and state actual, specific opinions. Don't take your eye off the ball and go on about how crazy it is that a band sounds a certain way even though it's from Town X, or wade into the weeds of record-label minutiae that rarely captivate anyone unfamiliar with the inner workings of the music industry. Don't talk down to people, but don't assume everyone's as obsessed as you are, either. In the spirit of "songstress," avoid words you'd never say out loud.

A specific "forbidden words" list is harder to come by than these general guidelines, and each stickler will be more than happy to issue a spittle-flecked list of his or her own. I know people who can't abide "chanteuse." I know people who purge the word "indie" whenever possible, or soft phrases like "sort of." For me, though, the biggest recurring no-no is probably flabby phrases that mean nothing, "garnering acclaim" being a particular non-favorite. (See also: "a growing fan base" and every other phrase that translates to, "Someone somewhere likes this music.")

Your internal editor may vary — as might your actual editor, should you be writing about music professionally. So ask around, listen to why certain words have fallen out of favor, and understand that there's only one immutable rule that must never be broken under any circumstances: Never use songstress.

Got a music-related question you want answered? Leave it in the comments, drop us an email at allsongs@npr.org or tweet @allsongs.